Shelley Fisher Fishkin presented her new book Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee (Rutgers) yesterday evening at Stanford’s Green Library, opening with a few words from E.L. Doctorow. Literature, the author observed, “endows places with meaning” by connecting “the visible and invisible” and finding “the hidden life in the observable life.”
No surprise, then, that her book focuses on a range of historical sites, and ones we might not anticipate: streets, theaters, a factory, a body of water, graveyards, a pump house.
She told her story from many overlooked perspectives – of the Latino farmworkers, of Jewish emigrants crammed in tenements, of Native Americans hunted and killed, of the workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
But perhaps the one that moved me the most was the story of Mary Ann Cord, the cook in the household of Mark Twain‘s in-laws Theodore and Susan Crane in Elmira, New York, where the Clemenses spent their summers. She was born into slavery in Maryland, and had lost her husband and seven children when the family was broken up and sold around 1852. She was reunited with her youngest son, Henry, thirteen years later, when he was a soldier in the Union army.
Twain had no idea when he casually asked her about her life. “He wrote down her words before they were cold,” said Shelley. He published the account, “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” in The Atlantic Monthly in 1874. Knowing Twain’s short stories, readers waited for the joke, but there was no joke. The story revealed “the agony of slavery, the enigma of cruelty,” Shelley said. “America would never be the same.” Twain would never be the same, either; he published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn a decade later.
I looked the story up online. It begins this way:
It was summer time, and twilight. We were sitting on the porch of the farm-house, on the summit of the hill, and “Aunt Rachel” was sitting respectfully below our level, on the steps, – for she was our servant, and colored. She was of mighty frame and stature; she was sixty years old, but her eye was undimmed and her strength unabated. She was a cheerful, hearty soul, and it was no more trouble for her to laugh than it is for a bird to sing. She was under fire, now, as usual when the day was done. That is to say, she was being chaffed without mercy, and was enjoying it. She would let off peal after peal of laughter, and then sit with her face in her hands and shake with throes of enjoyment which she could no longer get breath enough to express. At such a moment as this a thought occurred to me, and I said:
“Aunt Rachel, how is it that you’ve lived sixty years and never had any trouble?”
She stopped quaking. She paused, and there was a moment of silence. She turned her face over her shoulder toward me, and said, without even a smile in her voice: –
“Misto C –, is you in ‘arnest?”
It surprised me a good deal; and it sobered my manner and my speech, too. I said: –
“Why, I thought – that is, I meant – why, you can’t have had any trouble. I’ve never heard you sigh, and never seen your eye when there wasn’t a laugh in it.”
She faced fairly around, now, and was full of earnestness.
“Has I had any trouble? Misto C –, I’s gwyne to tell you, den I leave it to you. I was bawn down ‘mongst de slaves; I knows all ‘bout slavery, ‘cause I been one of ‘em my own se’f. Well, sah, my ole man – dat’s my husban’ – he was lovin’ an’ kind to me, jist as kind as you is to yo’ own wife. An’ we had chil’en – seven chil’en – an’ we loved dem chil’en jist de same as you loves you’ chil’en. Dey was black, but de Lord can’t make no chil’en so black but what dey mother loves ’em an’ wouldn’t give ‘em up, no, not for anything dat’s in dis whole world.
You can read the whole thing here.
From Writing America:
“At a time when the speech of African Americans was widely ridiculed in the nation at large, Twain recognized that African American vernacular speech and storytelling manifested a literary potential that was rich, powerful, and largely untapped in print. He went on to change the course of American literature by infusing it with lessons he had learned from African American speakers. And at a time when African Americans themselves were classified as inferior specimens of humanity by pseudoscientists and so-called educators, Mark Twain’s awareness of black individuals of courage and talent impelled him to challenge this characterization in fiction, nonfiction, quips, quotes, and unpublished meditations that he wrote from the 1870s until his death.”
And don’t forget to buy Shelley’s book here.